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Posts published in “Life in Durham”

A stroll through Southpoint

The smell of Auntie Anne’s, once unavoidable, is canceled out by the scent of a lemony floor cleaner. Masked shoppers exchange gentle, knowing looks. In the stores and at the kiosks, cashiers attempt to look approachable behind clear plastic register shields. Customers in line to check out are instructed where to stand by stickers marking 6-foot distances. This is Southpoint mall as Durham begins to reopen

In the past two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, beer-loving Durhamites have been enjoying their brews on their front porch, rather than with a game of cornhole at Ponysaurus or Stand-up Comedy at Durty Bull. As the city, along with many parts of the country, move through the phases of reopening, the hiss of a beer can be heard further and further from home — on the East Campus lawn or at Old North Durham Park. But these familiar outings look different, transformed by the social distance dance we all must do as we adapt to the World with the Virus. 

A stroll through the Streets at Southpoint offers a concentrated look at the choreography of this emerging reality. The parking lot, usually buzzing with shoppers hoping to capitalize on Memorial Day sales, has the feel one might expect during a midday visit on a Tuesday. In the quiet lot the dance begins: Is it alright to park right next to another car? Is that violating social distance etiquette? And walking in: Is it still polite to hold the door open for the person behind you? 

To amble around Southpoint is to do this awkward dance, a once-ordinary walk transformed into navigating a minefield that might hide an invisible disease. A pair of teens joke about crossing the tape line of the boarded-up massage chairs outside Macy’s, but they respectfully step to their right as another shopper comes into their radius. This is the dance. Couples share nervous glances when strangers get too close, but everyone works together to pretend at normalcy, making nonchalant conversation with their gloved cashiers as we shift into our new roles as mask-wearers and social distancers. 

A smattering of the stores have made the decision to open up and the new summer collections are the least of their changes. Hollister now requires masks to enter; Aerie gives them away; Macy’s has hand sanitizer stations at the entrances. Urban Outfitters has gone so far as to tape arrows on the floor to provide shoppers with a suggested path, taking you from room decor to hair accessories, to promote social distancing. 

The open retailers skew younger: Forever 21 and H&M. Pink, marketed toward young adults, is still closed, but Talbots, popular with middle-aged women, is in business. 

There’s no skew to the shoppers.  People of all ages wander the mall. Almost everyone travels in pairs; masks muffle the conversation, which makes the place quieter than usual. 

“This area is for sitting, not eating,” reads a paper sign taped to the Streets’ patio furniture. “This too, shall pass,” it adds. 

The sign hints at a return to normalcy, but that day is probably a long way in the future. Restaurants have shifted primarily to pick-up options. Food court favorites like Built (Custom Burgers) and Pholicious are open, but there’s not really any place to sit.

The fountains have gone dry as sculptures of children wait out an invisible storm for the mall to return to normal. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

The dark storefronts have paper signs with vague explanations and a little hope. The AMC Theatre says it is closed “today,” apologizing for the “inconvenience.” Bath & Body Works stresses the safety of their employees in the decision. 

What’s next for these stores? Will they open their doors again soon? Or fold like so many seemingly impenetrable companies taken down by the virus (JCPenney has filed for bankruptcy, while Pier 1 is closing all of its 540 stores)? Are they really holding back out of safety concerns? Financial difficulties? How are their workers holding up without the income? It seems these answers will not be available until “further notice.”

The mall, like Durham, is in a state of transition. The tables at the food court are cordoned off and the fountain outside the movie theatre is drained, like a lake after a drought.  But even so, people are puttering about — attempting to make sense of it all. There is an eeriness to this new world and a guilt to participating in it. How essential is this trip? Who am I putting at risk by making it? These questions lead to the bigger one hanging above Durham, palpable in public spaces like this: Are we ready for Phase 2?

In photo above, seating in the food court has been moved to discourage seating. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

At Bull City Magic, ‘the soul goal’ and a vision of a brighter future

“We’re not like a regular store,” Lynn Swain says, holding a smoking bundle of sage over the flame of one of her shop’s locally sourced vegan candles. 

Tom Swain, her husband and business partner, nods. “We want everyone to feel better when they walk through that door.” 

The door he is referring to opens into the mystical expanse of MagikCraft: Bull City Magic, a metaphysical shop and spiritual safe space just off of 9th Street. The store is owned and operated by the Swains, and its mission is what they call “the soul goal.” 

In what has come to be known as “this uncertain time,” they provide insight, positivity, and a bit of magic to Durham. 

The store is her headquarters as a clairvoyant, a service more pertinent than ever. With our routines and physical lives so starkly interrupted, today is on hold, making questions of tomorrow more pressing. It’s a perfect time to ponder the future. Lynn, a healer, psychic, and medium who also goes by the name MagikCraft, says she has a powerful relationship with energy and the (supposedly) unknown. She reads people and receives messages from the universe, often using crystals or cards as guiding tools. 

These days she is talking with clients over the phone or other virtual platforms, and it’s not just the mode of communication that has changed. She says that many of the inquiries she has received lately have related more to clients’ personal journey and reflection than ever before. That’s an encouraging trend, she believes. Working parents are spending more time with their children, relationships are being reassessed, and careers and passions are being critically evaluated. The shutdown has “put the brakes on, stop and look and listen.” she says. 

In a politically polarized time, the store is focused on offering a safe space to any and all who need it. “We don’t talk about politics here,” Tom says. “It’s not about what you are politically, it’s about your soul,” Lynn adds.

Eye-catching merchandise lines the walls and fills the glass display cases: crystals from every corner of the world—including one from the highest elevation of Tibet—countless tarot decks, lavender soaps, books on destiny or tarot reading, and cast-iron cauldrons. She says 80% of the mystical merchandise is by customer request, from over 40 local vendors. 

Even during a time of social distance, everyone receives a warm (but safe) welcome. This comes in many forms; sometimes it’s Lynn walking a customer around the store on FaceTime to put in a virtual order, other times it’s Tom, who was not “blessed with gifts” of psychic and medium knowledge like his wife and co-operator, but is known for pulling out a book that offers a look at a customer’s destiny based on their birthday and sharing a page or two with them. 

Bull City Magic hosts a range of 32 workshops – from monthly Full Moon Gatherings to Crystal Grid training. Stay-at-home restrictions have moved many of these events to the store’s new YouTube page, but the storefront remains very much in business; after a call to City Hall describing the value of their apothecary inventory and soaps, Lynn said Durham has said they could stay open. 

“We don’t want to just sell stuff,” says Tom, “we want to educate.” 

The couple has been in this space for almost three years, underneath Cosmic Cantina (the enchanted names of the two businesses bear no relation, but there is certainly a bit of Bull City magic in Cosmic’s bean burritos). Before moving to this location, the Swains worked out of a nearby office space to build clientele. 

“You don’t just open a metaphysical shop in the belt of Christianity without testing the waters, ” says Lynn. She has discovered that “Durham is a very mystic space,” but people like to keep that  “on the D.L.” 

Given the name MagikCraft by the universe, Lynn is a seventh generation medium and psychic; the store’s website boasts that by 2019, she had read over 30,000 people. Her many skills are are listed there:

Tarot , Oracle, Crystals, Ruins, Tea Leaves, Palm Reading, Scrying, Channeling, Mediumship, Akashic Records, Bone Throwing, Roots, Herbs, Shamanism, Reiki Master, Candlewax Reading, Fire Magic, Smoke Reading, Multi-Verse Dimensional Messages, God, Goddesses, Angels, Spirit Guides, Ancestor, Aura, Soul Energy, Dream Interpretation, Past Life Regression, Astral Projection along with visions through prophecy, Telekinesis, Psychokinesis, Aerokinesis, Afterlife Communication, AKD- After Death Communication, Healer, Clergy, Teacher, and Practitioner of the Craft.

She became a medium at age 4 and began reading people at age 13.

Besides being a guru of the metaphysical, she is a savvy businesswoman. At the age of 57, her resume includes a degree in mathematics from the University of Delaware and more than 30 years in corporate finance. 

Even in her years in the corporate world, Lynn worked internationally as a reader and healer. It finally became her full time profession when the newlyweds decided to open the shop in 2017. At the start, Tom, who worked previously as an electrician, manned the store during the week while Lynn continued her corporate work. She would then spend time in the store at night and on weekends, working more than 100 hours some weeks. Soon, though, she came to an important conclusion. 

“I realized everything I was saying to my clients I wasn’t doing,” she says.

This was a part of her process of “walking through the portal of fear,” advice she gives clients struggling to commit to their passions or confront the things holding them back spiritually. 

She is now fulfilled — though never finished. “I was blessed by being an insomniac,” she laughs. During the coronavirus slowdown, she and Tom are working on an herb wall, making more services available online, and they are collaborating with a Duke alum on a podcast. 

They opened a second location to host magical meet-ups: a Kava, espresso, crystal, and sage cafe between Durham and Hillsborough called Magic on 70. The cafe boasts coffee flavors with mystical namesakes, such as “Thoth: God of the Written Word.” Just as one might expect, this carries notes of “Vanilla, Dark Chocolate and Cranberries.” 

But alas, the website informs customers that for “the health and safety of our magical tribe,” the new shop is closed temporarily, although spiritual sessions are still available through virtual appointment with Lynn. 

Like all of us, they are learning to adapt. 

Lynn wears a purple mask around the store, and it nicely accents the lavender walls and the 700 pounds of amethyst crystal near the tarot cards. The store sells masks like hers in a variety of colors.  

“Mother Earth has put us in timeout and we need to self reflect,” Lynn says. She doesn’t expect things to ever return to “normal,” but feels this forced re-evaluation has some positive and powerful elements. She is hopeful for the future, a reassuring thing to hear from a psychic. 

People are taking this time to explore their  spiritual realm, whatever that realm maybe, which she says is “a human reset on a core level.” 

She smiles. “Positive energy is contagious.” 

Above, Tom and Lynn outside of Bull City Magic. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

Mothers & Sons is closed, but owner stays linked to local food scene

On Tuesday, March 17, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all bars and restaurant dining rooms to shut their doors. While this order was definitive, its consequences were far from simple. Josh DeCarolis, chef and owner of Mothers & Sons Trattoria in downtown Durham, had decisions to make and options to weigh.

DeCarolis faced the only two choices restaurants had then: Remain open with drastic limitations, or shut down until further notice. Neither was desirable and both would have far reaching consequences for owners, employees, and the local economy. 

Restaurants were permitted to offer takeout and delivery orders, but DeCarolis concluded that wasn’t viable for Mothers & Sons. It would be impossible to do enough business with takeout orders alone to sustain the restaurant and its staff, he said.

Even if running on takeout and delivery orders made economic sense, the risk would likely not be worth the reward. “We thought that the decision to try and completely pivot our business model was just going to make things difficult, and put people in danger unnecessarily. Our biggest concern as business owners and citizens is to be safe,” he said.

In late 2015, DeCarolis spent four months in Italy learning pasta making techniques. He opened Mothers & Sons in 2016. The restaurant became a staple for customers who crowded inside to order homemade pasta and other Italian dishes. 

Before it closed, Mothers & Sons had a staff of around 40 people that DeCarolis described as a huge, close family. He was forced to lay off everyone. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” DeCarolis said, “but there’s just not much we can do about it. Certainly, once the door is closed, there’s no way we can pay anybody.”

DeCarolis has worked in restaurants his whole adult life. Before opening Mothers & Sons, he was the head chef at Mateo Bar de Tapas next door. With years of experience dealing with food safety and food borne illnesses, he understands what protocols to follow if a chef or a staff member becomes sick. 

But the outbreak of COVID-19 was an unprecedented challenge for DeCarolis. “This is way above my pay grade,” he said, “I’m listening to what the experts say.”

Closing Mothers & Sons affected more than the chefs and servers who found themselves filing for unemployment. When a restaurant shuts down, a chain reaction reaches farms and suppliers large and small. 

Mothers & Sons relied on some larger distributors for kitchen staples, but it also bought fresh ingredients from many local farms. “It’s really a shame,” DeCarolis said, “These small farms rely on our business and we rely on them, and we’ve been forced to put everything on hold.”

The dining room shut down has inspired new offerings in Durham’s shrunken food scene. One is an Alimentari pop up shop in Lucky’s Delicatessen, promoted here on Instagram.

In addition to Mothers & Sons, DeCarolis is an owner at the Alimentari at Left Bank butchery in Raleigh. The shop is a partnership with the Left Bank Butchery in Saxapahaw, a village west of town with a vibrant food scene. The Raleigh shop is open part time and does business largely through pre-orders and curb side pick up.

Although Alimentari is a smaller venture than DeCarolis’ primary restaurant, these days he’s been putting more energy into keeping it open and running. To try and support his smaller suppliers, DeCarolis has been purchasing ingredients that he’d normally buy for Mothers & Sons to use at Alimentari instead. 

Like formerly full-service restaurants braving the storm with takeout and delivery services, Alimentari has changed. The butcher shop is open only four days a week, Wednesday through Saturday. Only one customer is admitted at a time. 

Alimentari’s staff was not spared from layoffs either. Initially staff was trimmed to just one essential employee. Since then, they were able to hire back four more employees, DeCarolis said.

Some unexpected good has come out of this difficult situation, DeCarolis said. Some staff previously employed at Mothers & Sons are now making school lunches for Durham public schools as part of FEAST, the charity program organized to feed children in need throughout Durham County. 

Mothers & Sons supplies food and kitchen space to prepare the lunches. Former Mothers & Sons employees receive some compensation for their work, but DeCarolis has not been able to rehire them.

The COVID-19 era has also brought an unexpected expansion for Alimentari. A pop up shop called Alimentari at Mothers & Sons opened May 7 in the place of another next-door neighbor: Lucky’s Delicatessen on West Chapel Hill Street. The pop up is open Thursdays through Saturdays and sells fresh produce and Italian goods.

“We’ve only been open a week, but it’s been pretty encouraging,” DeCarolis said, “A lot of people from the community have come out.”  

DeCarolis says he finds a silver lining in being able to be there for his Alimentari customers and continuing to build trust and goodwill. “People are really thankful and grateful to be able to get quality meat and fresh pasta, without having to go out to a crowded, big box grocery store,” he said.

Trust and goodwill may be a saving grace after Gov. Roy Cooper allows dining rooms, with new limitations, to reopen on or after May 22. Almost all restaurants will be in a difficult position after having to shut down or downscale for so long. Support from customers now and in coming months is vital, said DeCarolis, who intends to reopen Mothers & Sons. 

“We’re keeping a close eye on what the state government is saying, and we’re hoping to open back up safely as soon as possible,” he said, “I can’t predict when that will be.”

DeCarolis praised Durham for being a strong community, particularly among restaurant owners,workers, and customers. 

“We’re all trying to navigate this together,” DeCarolis said, “We’re working as a community, but the long and short of it is that everybody, big and small, is going to need some help.”

At top: Not long ago Mothers & Sons was one of Durham’s most vibrant downtown restaurants. Photo by Corey Pilson 

 

On Ninth Street, Happy + Hale offers to-go fare and ‘kindness’

On a Sunday in March, Duke University student Olivia Stohrer arrived at Happy + Hale ready to work another dinner rush.

After tucking her bun under a signature green hat, she saw what had become familiar: customers crowding the order line and filling cafeteria-style tables.

Within two weeks, those tables would stand empty. Bottles of hand sanitizer and buckets of disinfectant would appear. And Stohrer’s job would be gone.

After Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all restaurants to suspend dine-in operations on March 17, Durham’s lively restaurant scene was thrown into chaos. Many of the city’s 400 eateries had to recreate themselves or close.

Happy + Hale turned to curbside delivery and pickup orders, but the revenue doesn’t match that of sit-down service. The immediate impact for the cafe was a 90% decrease in business across its locations as of March 22, according to CEO and founder Tyler Helikson.

 “We’ve never seen anything like this,” Helikson said.“A lot of restaurant jobs will be lost because of this, unfortunately permanently.”

While Durham restaurants are suffering in their own ways, many share the loss of key customers: Duke University students and staff. Just a walk away from East Campus and many off-campus apartments, Happy + Hale’s Ninth Street location is a hot spot among the Duke community.

On any given day, 50% to 60% of customers were Duke students before the coronavirus outbreak, Helikson said. Happy + Hale’s business fluctuated with Duke’s social calendar. “If there’s a Duke game, then our business goes down during the hours of the game,” Stohrer said.

As restaurants scramble to break even in a world of social distancing, payroll is often the first cost to cut. While Happy + Hale Durham transitioned from 13-hour weekdays to limited service hours from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., more than half of the employees lost their jobs, Helikson said. And a smaller staff’s hours were reduced by more than half.

Cutting jobs was painful for Helikson because it broke apart a tight-knit co-worker group established over years, he said. In March he wrote a heartfelt letter to the “Happy + Hale Family” detailing the tough changes ahead.

“My heart is breaking thinking about all of you who come in every day and give everything you have to make our communities happier and healthier,” Helikson wrote. “We have an extraordinary team of leaders in this company who stop at nothing to keep us moving forward. There’s no other way to say it — this time is different.”

To ease some of the hardship, Helikson promised to reinstate employees’ jobs if the business reopens as normal. He also offered assistance with filing for unemployment and help with emergency food, financial or shelter needs, he said.

Happy + Hale has delivered meals to hospitals and medical practices during the coronavirus outbreak, generating praise when it posts photos like this on Instagram.

Patty Davis, a Happy + Hale shift manager, is one of seven employees who kept his job. As a full-time employee, Davis worked over 40 hours per week before the epidemic, but shifted to 20 hours a week, at most, after it started.

Right away, the difference in Davis’s paycheck was palpable. Like many of his co-workers, he planned to file for partial unemployment to recover lost income. Yet, the high volume of filings caused the state unemployment website to crash, making it difficult for Davis and many others to submit an application.

Amid the rapid changes, Davis took on various impromptu roles. Some days he’s a delivery driver, other days he’s on dish duty, and still other days he helps in the kitchen. The most difficult adjustment has been the loss of his work community. “I really see them as my family, everyone was super tight,” he said. “I guess we still are, but you know, you don’t see these people anymore.”

Stohrer, who worked the counter at Happy + Hale, misses a steady paycheck too. But like Davis, she misses the people she worked with the most. She misses the staff meetings when Helikson would treat everyone to burgers and drinks at a local bar. She misses the hours spent ranting to her co-workers about school problems that would somehow alleviate her stress by the end of the night.

“You know how people say at college, ‘Go join a club, find your people,’” Stohrer said. “Happy + Hale was one of those things for me where I had these really cool people that I worked with, and it felt like a community.”

The National Restaurant Association has warned that $225 billion could be lost within the restaurant industry countrywide between March and June. Five to seven million jobs could be eliminated.

Recently, Cooper launched a three-phase plan to reopen North Carolina businesses. Starting May 8, phase one reopened many retail shops. However, limited dine-in services won’t be permitted until phase two, to begin May 22 at the earliest.

One sign that Happy + Hale is hanging on came on May 11, when its Durham store expanded hours to 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday.

Even as Durham restaurants are strained by the crisis, many are doing what they can to help others. Happy + Hale promoted the Triangle Restaurant Workers Relief Fund, a project raising money for restaurant staff who have lost wages due to the coronavirus.

Happy + Hale also added a Kindness Bowl option to the menu at its Durham restaurant and North Hills Raleigh restaurant, enabling customers to purchase a $5 rice bowl donated to frontline hospital staff. Customers responded quickly.

“Because of your generosity we’ve been able to deliver over 800 Kindness Bowls to various hospitals in our communities and still have several hundreds to go,” read a Happy + Hale Instagram post on April 3.

Local partnerships help feed families during pandemic

On April 16, the Durham Public Schools Foundation, Food Insight Group, and the Durham Hotel began providing breakfast and lunch to local students in a new partnership called Durham FEAST. 

The announcement came after Durham Public Schools struggled to maintain a safe food distribution program.

Durham Public Schools had been offering free meals to students since March 23. But after learning that an employee at Bethesda Elementary School had contracted the coronavirus, the school system discontinued the program in early April.

Local families didn’t know where their next meal would come from. So several organizations stepped up. 

The DPS Foundation, a community-led nonprofit that supports the school system, took on the bulk of student food distribution. It ramped up its weekly food delivery program to deliver meals to 1,500 families, and then joined the Durham FEAST initiative.

A Riverside High School senior Elijah King also offered his own solution, partnering with local businesses to start the Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative. They set up shop in front of Geer Street Garden and distribute sandwiches. 

And Catholic Charities and Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina continue their food pantries.

They don’t know how long school cafeterias and local restaurants will be closed, but these distribution services anticipate working for the long haul. 

“In any instance when something like the coronavirus is happening in Durham, the community comes together,” said King. “It’s like New York, but on a very small scale.”

A community FEAST

As Durham FEAST launched its partnership on Thursday, thousands of Durham families flocked to DPS schools — while staying six feet apart — to pick up free breakfast and lunch from Durham restaurants. The provisions are meant to serve all children under 18 years old for several days. 

The Restaurant at The Durham, Monuts, Spicy Green, Southern Harvest Catering, and Beyu Caffe were first to offer meals. Kids may have a buckle streusel, a banana muffin, or overnight oats for breakfast. Lunch options included quinoa chicken or vegetarian spinach alfredo pasta. Family-style casseroles and shelf ingredients were also available. 

Depending on the location, pick-ups are on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays. Some locations open at 11 a.m. and others at 12 p.m. Volunteers drive meals to families that are unable to pick up food.

“The main thing that we need right now is even more volunteers, especially with the new announcement,” said Katie Spencer Wright, communications manager for the DPS Foundation.

Over 900 volunteers pitched in during the DPS Foundation’s previous program, including Durham Bulls mascot Wool E. Bull and Durham City Council members Charlie Reece and Javiera Caballero.

“Everyone is happy to be out of the house and enjoying working together on this, which is what we need to do,” said Spencer Wright. “We need to have each other’s backs.” 

Community donations are also essential to support the ongoing program. Funds go toward meals and paying restaurant employees’ wages.

Over 1,100 Durham community members have donated funds to the meal program. Mayor Steve Schewel announced he’d match all donations up to $10,000 to the previous initiative. Durham songwriter and DPS dad Hiss Golden Messenger pledged all proceeds from his new record to the meal effort. (Spencer Wright says it’s “great quarantine music.”)

Federal school meal funding and Durham County also back the initiative.

A student-run initiative

As the coronavirus escalated in Durham, King, a Riverside High School senior, became concerned about small businesses. He wondered how he could support local restaurants while addressing community food shortages.

He presented a couple ideas to friends and businesses: An ad campaign? Business partnerships?

“Everyone shot them down,” he said.

Then, he thought of Grant Ruhlman, the owner of Homebucha Kombucha. Ruhlman had heard King speak at a climate strike and told King to reach out if he ever needed help.

Together, Ruhlman and King decided to work with local businesses to provide free lunches. Homebucha Kombucha, Lil Farm, and Geer Street Garden joined in the effort, which they named Durham Neighbors Free Lunch Initiative.

Every weekday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., they set up outside Geer Street Garden and distribute about 100 meals. Community members wait for food, standing in distanced lines and listening to amplified music. 

Lunch selections vary day-by-day, including pimento cheese, turkey, or BLT sandwiches. Sides may be yogurt, bread, fresh fruit, or veggies.

The initiative runs on monetary donations to provide food from the farm and restaurants. 

Within a week of announcing the initiative, their GoFundMe campaign burgeoned, reaching nearly $35,000 in donations. That would cover sandwiches, masks, water bottles, and four employees’ wages for a couple weeks. 

“But as soon as we pay all of the bills this week, that money is going to be gone,” King said. 

He needs to raise more money to keep the initiative running until May 15. If he runs into trouble, he’ll consider decreasing the production cost of meals.

“No matter what, we are going to continue paying living wages. That’s what they made before, and that’s what they’re going to be making,” King said.

Other resources

Local food banks continue offering meals and accepting donations during the pandemic.

The Durham Community Food Pantry reopened April 10 after issuing new guidelines to protect volunteers and clients from the virus. The pantry, run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, operates from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

As of April 9, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina had distributed 11,132 boxes of 20 meals each during the coronavirus outbreak. They operate in a 34-county region and work with local nutritionists to determine needs.

At top: Volunteers distribute meals at Glenn Elementary School as part of a new DPS Foundation initiative to address food insecurity during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Corey Pilson, The 9th Street Journal

Virtual arts and exercise classes offer innovation and community

At the end of class at Empower Dance Studio, director Nicole Oxendine tells her students to unmute their Zoom sound. They extend their arms to the sides of the screen, as if holding hands in their usual “empower circle.” 

“That’s our connection, that’s like our church. Faith is ingrained in everything we do,” Oxendine says.

They “tendu” their right foot toward the camera — even though it may not fit in the video frame.

Oxendine counts to three and the students yell “empower.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, Oxendine will teach dance over Zoom. Her studio is among other Durham arts and exercise studios that recently made the switch. It has required many adaptations: bathrooms with tile floors have become tap-dancing studios. Sneakers have replaced blocks in yoga classes. iPhone cameras have sufficed for photography workshops. 

They’re temporary fixes, but the Zoom classes help Durham maintain its artsy flair during a trying time. Durhamites stay connected virtually as local businesses try to stay afloat. 

Dance like Zoom is watching

March 21 was the first day of what Oxendine called the “testing” period for online dance classes. Her studio started with a “Tiny Tots” Zoom class for 2 year olds.

She’s optimistic that students will continue taking classes. Despite the quick transition to online dance, class attendance remained above 50%.

Still, she said, “we don’t know what the final (financial) repercussions are going to be.”

Oxendine held a Facebook Live meeting to update parents about creative modifications for dancing at home.

Bathrooms with tile floors have become tap-dancing studios. Kitchen chairs make decent ballet barres. “And if there’s an across-the-floor combination, we recommend you try it outside,” she said. 

It’s not only a question of staying in shape and maintaining dance technique. Empower Dance Studio teachers also want to reinforce the studio’s values over Zoom.

“Faith is a core value of Empower. We have faith in ourselves, we believe in ourselves” she said. “You have your own power, you have your sense of agency, and you have a gift.”

Still, faith has been difficult to cultivate over Wifi. Oxendine hopes to encourage faith and community by allowing dancers to lament about the coronavirus or share their stay-at-home experiences. She’ll ask them about their homework or TV shows they’ve been watching. 

“These kids, they have anxiety around what’s happening now, too. I tell the teachers to take a minute to check and sit and be present with them,” she said.

‘A la carte’ yoga

Though the online yoga scene has been growing for a while, Yoga Off East founder Kathryn Smith hadn’t thought her studio would join in. 

But once the coronavirus outbreak began, customers started reaching out to Smith, saying they’d pay for online classes. One yoga instructor offered to share her Zoom account. 

Fifty customers signed up for the studio’s first online yoga class on March 21. 

Classes have taken new forms. Music is optional because Zoom’s sound quality is unreliable. Students can choose whether to use video, enabling them to opt for the instructor to correct their movements over the screen or not. 

“There’s an a la carte menu of options that people don’t typically have,” Smith said. 

Students can do prop-free yoga, or they can try household substitutions: a sneaker for a block, a pillow for a bolster, and a towel for a mat. 

It’s been going well enough that Smith is considering making online classes a new staple for Yoga Off East. 

“Our 9th Street community, we have people traveling for work constantly,” she said. “I always see us as a small neighborhood studio, but it looks like we will be moving in the direction of expanding our online offerings.” 

Smith is appreciative that her customers have wanted to take online classes. But she misses the community-building element of meeting in-person. 

“(Online classes) meet the needs of alternative ways to feel connected and not get sucked into isolation,” she said. “But the energy of an in-person class is really irreplaceable.”

A new perspective

Last year, Martha Hoelzer offered photography lessons during a pilgrimage to Iona, Scotland, that focused on spirituality beyond organized religion.

“I was teaching components of using photography as a means to delve deeper spiritually,” said Hoelzer, who runs A Breath of Fresh Air Photography.

She was set to teach photography again in April at Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, NC. Now, she’ll offer a photography workshop over Zoom on Thursdays from 1 to 2 p.m. 

Students will take photos from different perspectives in their homes, maybe standing on a chair or crouching behind a couch. She anticipates they’ll use iPhones, Androids, and iPads: that’s how it was in Scotland.

Photography student captures images while quarantining in her home. Photo contributed by Sienna Smith

While part of the upcoming class will teach smartphone semantics, she wants to focus more on “composition and challenging people to think about their perspectives.” She’ll also encourage each student to share 10 or 20 recent photos they’ve taken as a way to facilitate discussion and inspiration. 

Hoelzer is no stranger to self-isolating. She’s gone through multiple severe concussions — two since 2016 — and has recently been working on a photography project about brain injuries called What Lies Beneath.

She compares the concussion experience to quarantining. 

“What we’re doing now isn’t that unsimilar to what I’ve had to do off and on over the last four years. Minus the fact that you can’t enjoy things like cooking because somebody whose brain is injured might not be able to follow the directions,” she said. “You can’t watch TV, or you can’t read a book.”

Hoelzer hopes that as students crouch to get a new perspective for their photograph, they may also gain a new perspective on quarantining and the coronavirus.

“Let’s reframe the current situation of what we’re having to face,” she said. “Turn lemons into lemonade or whatever.”

At top: Yoga Off East students finish a Zoom class in Namaste pose. Photo contributed by Kathryn Smith

‘You are not alone’: Signs of a pandemic

To break through the deluge of headlines and non-stop news alerts about COVID-19, many people have reverted to an old form of information sharing: a Sharpie and a sheet of paper. 

In this strange time of distance and sheltering-in-place, signs seem to greet us more often than people. They are placeholders of the reality we once knew, the restaurants and coffee shops we visited, the schools we attended, and the parks we lounged in on Sunday afternoons. They are now silenced, explained by a few scrawled words of instructions, explanations or well wishes. Like buildings with speech bubbles, the conversational nature of these notices gives life to dark news. 

Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

“OPEN FOR LUNCH” shouts the sign outside Skewers on Main Street. It usually boasts Open Mic Nights or Karaoke, but it’s now trying to convey the simple message that Skewers is still in business.  That tactic is being used by many restaurants and businesses, to simply reassure customers that a store is still alive. Some have an artistic flair, like Michoacan Mexican Restaurant’s “Open/ Take Out & Delivery” sign, spruced up with an emphatic blue marker. Shooters II opted for a sweet farewell, “Be Safe/ See Y’all Soon.”  At the Italian Pizzeria on Hillsborough Road, the sign says, “Everything will be okay… Love and Teamwork always wins.” 

Businesses are also using their signs to share changes in procedures for our strange COVID-19 world. “Please keep an 8 ft distance between yourself and other pick-up folks!!” reads a printed sign attached to a traffic cone outside Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street.

Photo by Corey Pilson

Most signs are concise, but not at K Nails, a nail salon on Hillsborough Road. It has two signs, both full paragraphs describing their plans regarding the changes. One details changes in the usual cleaning routine to be more conducive to virus protection, asking customers to “wash their hands prior to being seated.” The other, apparently posted later, informs of a short closure, citing it as the toughest choice they have ever had to make. 

With advice and understanding surrounding the virus that is constantly changing, this transparency of businesses offers comfort. Customers are getting a personal look at the way restaurants, stores, and salons are adapting. “We’re Still Here (we’re just hiding),” promises a bright pink flyer outside Durham Short Run Shirts. It says they’re now selling online, and it signs off, “Stay Safe + Stay Healthy.”

Photo by Corey Pilson

Electronic boards outside schools and colleges blare LED messages that seem to be a mix of outdated information and not-so-subtle attempts to exercise waning authority. Hillside High School’s sign has clearly not been updated since the statewide mandate that schools close until May 17th, and its hopeful blue “Classes Resume April 6th” carries an unrealistic  cheerfulness. 

Duke’s East Campus Trail, teeming with people on their daily walks, has many lawn signs that say “Duke/ We’re In This Together / Keep Your Distance,” which seems like an oxymoron. Other signs use levity, like NCCU’s cheeky light-up billboard, using its eagle mascot to exemplify an adequate social distance. 

Signs on the Al Buehler Trail take a more serious tone. “DO NOT USE FITNESS STATIONS” says a laminated sign on the fitness loop, accented with a decorative stop sign to convey a tone of urgency. “Observe social distancing” it states later — not a suggestion but a demand. Another one, next to the public fountains, says, “WATER FOUNTAINS ARE TEMPORARILY SHUT OFF TO REDUCE PUBLIC INTERACTION.” 

Other signs are poignant, offering messages of hope or simple solidarity. “You are not alone,” says one drawn with a rainbow of colored pencils that is posted on a residence hall door on Duke’s West Campus.

Top photo by Corey Pilson | The 9th Street Journal

‘Wipes are not flushable’: Inside Durham’s toilet paper freak-out

In stores around Durham, aisles usually well-diversified with toilet paper brands endorsed by happy bear families and cherubic mascots are barren. A sign above the depleted shelves at the Target on 15/501 declares, “Due to high demand and to support all guests, we will be limiting the quantities of toilet paper, flushable wipes and facial tissue to 1 each per guest.”  

These are dire times. One unanticipated consequence of the coronavirus crisis is a nationwide shortage of toilet paper, as well as tissues and (now-infamous) flushable wipes.  It’s not just Target. The shelves echo emptiness at Harris Teeter, Costco, Whole Foods and just about any other Durham store that sells it.

The void in the home-goods aisles has made room for Durhamites to step in. Listservs, Facebook groups, and Instagram posts show how the community has come together to help people cope with the toilet paper turmoil. 

On one Durham email thread, a woman offered up her own recent shipment from Who Gives A Crap, a specialty retailer that sells a version said to be 100% recycled.  She emphasized that she was not amassing a supply of the paper (which has become a bit of a taboo, particularly in community-minded Durham), but was simply a long-time subscriber to the service. The woman, ironically enough, did seem to give a crap: Her goal was to donate toilet paper to groups that may have a harder time obtaining it during the COVID-19 crisis such as the elderly or immunocompromised. 

Scott Sellers, a father of two, is also attempting to pass some TP under the stall, so to speak. He and a few of the other younger members of the listserv have banded together to run errands for those more at risk – and make sure they get the toilet paper they need. The effort, he says, is “emphasizing the best about us.” 

Sellers has heard some horror stories of stockpiling. 

“Harris Teeter restocks [toilet paper] at 6:30 a.m.,” he says, “and people are waiting in line until they run out.”

He is still scratching his head to understand the hoarding culture. His theory is that toilet paper is tangible.

“You can’t see this virus but you can see the toilet paper,” he says. Leaving a store with four 12-packs of Charmin or Angel Soft, in the face of mounting unpredictability, feels productive. 

People seem to crave this feeling. Throughout the county, there is a dull quiet. Workplaces are closed, stores are shuttered. People are seeking control – so they stock their pantries, and they fill linen closets, with toilet paper. 

A coping mechanism, “that’s probably what it is,” Sellers says. “Like, this gives me a piece of anchoring during this completely uncertain time.”

Empty shelves at the Target on 15/501.

David Matthews, the branch manager of Not Just Paper, an office and school supply store on Main Street, is also trying to understand the obsession. He agrees that it’s less about the use and more about the preparation. When expecting a child, this concept is called nesting – the urge to create a comfy space for the new baby. When expecting a pandemic, it’s about preparing the nest for an unclear future.

“People are unfamiliar with what all these stay-in-place orders mean and we feel insecure,” he says. “Word got out that you have to have your basic supplies and when you think about it, (toilet paper) is a basic supply people take for granted.”

He thinks there’s a bit of groupthink, too. “It gets your attention when you see the shelves empty.” Everyone is wondering why their friends and neighbors are stocking up, but don’t want to be the ones caught empty-handed. 

People have traveled far, from Rocky Mount and Jackson County, to visit his store. So he is loudly marketing their stash: a sign out front boasts, “We have toilet paper!”

“Supply and demand,” he points out. “We have it; other people don’t.” 

Not Just Paper is one of the many retailers that has taken to establishing a limit per customer, in an effort to flatten the curve on stockpiling. “I want to make sure there’s enough for everyone,” Matthews explains. 

At the end of the day, Matthews isn’t worrying about the psychology behind the hoarding. Like Sellers and the listserv volunteers, he just wants customers to know he can help. And while they’re not just paper – they do have plenty of it. 

And finally, some discouraging news for those who have not been so lucky in their bathroom stashing and have attempted to get creative. Flushable wipes, which are likewise beginning to sell out (much to the chagrin of city officials) are meant to serve as a TP alternative and dissolve in the sewer. Indeed, Cottonelle, the self-ascribed “No. 1 Flushable Wipe Brand among national flushable wipes brands,” claims to begin this dissolving process right after flushing. 

The city of Durham begs to differ. 

“Wipes are not flushable — no matter what the ads want us to believe!” their Instagram, @cityofdurhamnc, posted recently. The post goes on to implore residents to discontinue use of the products, which can clog home plumbing or sewer lines. It sums up the warning by urging followers to “#protectyourpipes,” perhaps in a wink to the respiratory pandemic causing the surge in stocking. 

At top, a sign outside Not Just Paper. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

The board: cancellations, uncertainty, and hope on a bulletin board on 9th Street

The building is empty and the sun-bleached paint is peeling, but the wall of Ninth Street’s now-defunct clothing store, Native Threads, is still alive with a kaleidoscope of brightly colored flyers. 

The makeshift bulletin board, an old-school way to learn about events in the area, stands as a snapshot of what life had in store before the COVID-19 shutdown. Concerts, comedy shows, and meditation classes have been canceled as chaos and social distance overtake the Triangle. 

We tracked down the performers and organizers behind some of the flyers. 

Jess

The flyer for The Bright Side Conference is, appropriately enough, quite bubbly. It promotes “a gathering high-fiving women for where they’re at now and helping them get to where they want to go.” But, with high-fiving recently deemed unsafe, the event won’t be held as planned in Raleigh.

Still, the Bright Side Conference “was always about optimism,” said organizer Jess Ekstrom, and she has adapted. With unpredictability being just about the only predictable thing in our lives, Ekstrom and her team are still leaning into their hopeful message: “We need (optimism) now more than ever.” 

The conference will go on, but not exactly as planned. The organizers have shifted gears to make the whole thing virtual — which, Ekstrom said, came with an unforeseen slew of benefits. She invoked a phrase that a friend has been using: “With new problems come new solutions.” 

The conference, originally open only to women, is now open to anyone. The virtual platform also allows self-paced access to talks and workshops that never expire on topics such as yoga, meditation, and art. The team has been able to invite more speakers now that travel is not a consideration, and their message is reaching more people and possibly having “a greater ripple effect.”

Ekstrom said the whole episode is a reminder to be flexible and learn. “Sometimes we think because something was our original plan, it was right,” Ekstrom said. In having to reevaluate her plans, she has found that there are “things in store for us that we don’t even know about.” 

This has created a shift in the conference’s central theme as well; it will now focus on “the future and how we can remain optimistic.” 

Ekstrom graduated from North Carolina State University with a bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies in 2013. Since then, she has started two businesses, made a name for herself as a public speaker, and recently published a book titled, appropriately enough, “Chasing the Bright Side.” The book emphasizes using optimism as a tool to create the life you want to live. She got her start in college, when she founded a company called Headbands of Hope that donated a headband to a child with cancer for every headband sold. 

“I had no idea what I was doing but had this belief that I could make the future better,” she said.

She has taken a similar approach for the Bright Side Conference. Since participants won’t be getting swag bags, the conference is donating them to nurses and hospital staffers. 

Yet even Ekstrom sometimes finds it tough to see the bright side. “It’s been one moment I’m like, ‘this is great,’ and then the next moment I get sucked into a dark hole on Twitter,” she admitted. She described it all as “an emotional roller coaster” but maintained a sense of hope. Like so many, Ekstrom is finding solace in the community that will come of this strange and unknown time. 

“It’s affecting everyone,” she noted, “and that’s the good and the bad part. But there’s so much unity in that.”

Rebecca

The flyer for “The Rebecca Show” features two women striking thoughtful poses. Rebecca Fox and Rebecca Jackson-Artis are pondering one of life’s most pressing questions, the title of their performance at the Pure Life Theatre in Raleigh: “What if I’m The Becky?” Their website describes Becky as “a catch-all name for a white woman who doesn’t get it … is that redundant?” 

The show, now postponed, was going to cover “sexism, racism, violence, the brutality of motherhood, exploitation in sports, regrets in old age, and the dynamics of changing friendships.” 

Fox said the two “are proud to have made a decisive, timely choice” in pushing the performance back. The Manbites Dog Theater Fund, which was sponsoring the show, “has given all the recipients an extension,” according to Fox. 

Fox, a bilingual speech language pathologist, teacher, performer and mother, said she is now focused on taking care of her children, who are out of school. She is not yet sure when performing will be back on her mind. 

“I’m anticipating that we will all be inside for a long time,” Fox said, adding, “I’m hopeful that after my family and I have established some semblance of a new routine, I’ll be able to carve out some time and energy for work and a creative life again.”

It’s a time of uncertainty.

“As with so many things,” she said, “it’s TBD.” 

John

“Tibetan Lama Geshe Denma will introduce practices of Nine Breaths of Purification and Tsa Lung,” promises one flyer, advertising a weekend of Tibetan Yogas of Body and Breath. 

It says the Nine Breaths of Purification “is a simple yet powerful practice for clearing our relationships to attachment, aversion and ignorance by regulating our breath and bringing awareness to the movement of the winds in the channels.”  Tsa Lung teaches exercises that cleanse the chakras. The flyer notes that these are “movements easily learned and benefits quickly felt.”

Unfortunately, the weekend of meditative practice has been canceled, leaving the chakras of many Durhamites clogged in the weeks to come. Lama Geshe Denma, who was born in Nepal and trained in India, was coming to Durham from a nearby retreat in Virginia. Now that he will no longer be passing through, it would be a challenge to reschedule. 

But yogi and event sponsor John Gordon Moore has found peace with the decision. “Although I was certainly disappointed that the workshop had to be canceled,” he said, “it also provides an opportunity to practice contentment, and to gracefully accept whatever life offers.” 

Moore, a Durham local since 1999, has been teaching yoga since 1987, and in his many years with the practice he has come to learn that it is “not only about flexibility of body but also of mind.” He mentioned that this time of reassessment and finding grace in the midst of disorder reminds him of an old Sanskrit word, “Santosa.” The word embodies a profound sense of comfortability or contentment. 

Already, the quietness that life has taken on has prompted contemplation in Moore. “Surprised isn’t the right word,” he mused, “I’m impressed by the ways the community is coming together.” 

Photos by Carmela Guaglianone. 

Are local book stores endangered? Not in Durham

Ever since large chain bookstores and Amazon took over the bookselling market, popular culture has often relegated the independent bookstore to a thing of the past, painting it as a quiet space filled with stacks of aging, dusty books.  

In reality, independent bookstores are thriving  — especially in Durham, where there are at least five, including one that opened just last year. 

In fact, there was a 35% increase in the number of independent bookstores in the U.S. between 2009 and 2015, and their profits have continued to rise, according to the American Booksellers Association

Durham authors, researchers and bookstore owners say that independent bookstores continue to be successful because they serve as community hubs, each with their own distinct personality and specific niche of books.  

“Independent bookstores simply are cultural centers and community resources in a way an online retailer is not,” said Orin Starn, a history and cultural anthropology professor at Duke University who has published several books and sold them at The Regulator in Durham. 

Over the past several decades, the bookselling industry has seen drastic changes. In the 1970s, almost every bookstore in the country was independent, owned and operated by locals, according to a 2017 Harvard study

When chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders opened in the 1990s and offered customers a more convenient book buying experience, many independent stores went out of business. The creation of Amazon exacerbated their decline: The number of independent stores fell 43% between 1995 and 2000, according to the American Booksellers Association. 

Then, things changed. Amazon’s cheap prices and quick delivery pushed chain bookstores out. Borders went out of business in 2011; Barnes & Noble has been suffering from declining sales for the past five years. 

Meanwhile, independent bookstores reemerged as a small but significant player.

“People like to live in the physical world and not always on the computer,” said Land Arnold, owner of Durham’s Letters Bookshop. 

Besides providing a physical space to browse, independent bookstores appeal to their local customers by promoting a sense of community through events, including author talks and open mic nights. Most also sell merchandise like vintage ads, postcards, buttons, and stationary. 

Independent bookstores often serve as community hubs, hosting events and book readings. Photo by Corey Pilson

Starn, the Duke professor and author, said “bookstores have been a magnificent thing for Durham by providing community events and supporting local authors with book rollout parties.”

Durham’s bookstore scene is still growing. Last year, David Bradley opened his bookstore, Golden Fig Books on a stretch of Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard that holds lots of small, local businesses. The store has tall, black bookshelves that make the colors of the books pop, small reading nooks near large windows and shiny hardwood floors.

Bradley said Durham bookstores are successful because they each create unique experiences for customers. 

“There should be certain values that each bookstore holds, a different ambience and an eye on developing trends and interests within the community,” he said.

In addition to used books, Golden Fig Books sells t-shirts, pin and tote bags, and hosts community events such as author talks and literary trivia nights. Bradley said he thinks there’s an “increased appetite” in the Triangle for these community spaces. 

Still, running an independent bookstore is challenging.

“My main competition is getting the word out about my bookstore and being noticed in the marketplace,” Bradley said. 

Other bookstores in Durham utilize similar strategies to attract customers. The Regulator Bookshop, near Duke University, has been around since 1976. It hosts events like story time for children and a poetry series. It also offers discounts for students and teachers and provides books to local organizations like the Durham Literacy Center and the N.C. Women’s Prison Book Project. 

Wentworth and Leggett Books, which has been in Durham for 37 years, specializes in antiquarian books, hosts live music, and sells antique maps, postcards, prints, and magazine ads.

For many customers, these places have become resilient community anchors — and a better alternative to shopping online. 

“People don’t want to buy their books in a cookie cutter way,” Starn said. “In an independent bookstore, you can see people you know, pick up books, start to read them, and browse in a way that is somehow not exactly the same experience as online.”

Top photo: The Golden Fig Bookstore in Durham. Photo by Corey Pilson